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More than history buffs' haven

January 4, 2004 1:15 am

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Russ Smith, the new superintendent of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, says working with local governments, developers and preservationists to protect the sprawling battlefields here is a top priority. loparkside.jpg

Gregg Kneipp, a natural resources manager with the National Park Service, uses the global positioning system to locate a boundary marker in Lake of the Woods subdivision next to the Wilderness battlefield.

By RUSTY DENNEN
Battlefields harbor natural areas and abundant wildlife

Each time a new subdivision or store goes up in the vicinity of one of the Fredericksburg area's four Civil War battlefields, it has an impact--on the animals.

"Birds and animals can move. Fish can move up to a point, but if all the land is developed outside the park, it's unfortunate for the animals inside. It can lead to stress on the existing animals and on the incoming ones," said Gregg Kneipp, natural resources manager for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park .

There may already be too many deer living in the Fredericksburg battlefield, where hunting is prohibited.

"That will be an issue in the future and could be an issue in the rest of the [battlefields] later," Kneipp said.

Meanwhile, wildlife surveys are in the works, he said. "We want to know what we have." A 1991 survey identified some rare plants.

The national park consists of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg battlefields, the park's Chatham headquarters in southern Stafford and a few other small tracts. The park's boundaries encompass about 8,000 acres; there are 23 miles of trails, 1,500 acres of open land and 6,500 acres of forest.

Kneipp's office makes sure that any projects undertaken within the park follow federal environmental guidelines.

"A lot of what I do is compliance," he said. For example, a plan to return a portion of Sunken Road to its wartime appearance required an environmental assessment. That restoration project will begin this spring.

The same review was needed recently for the removal of two small dams on park property.

Even farming on open space in the park requires a review and permit. Low-impact farming, requiring little or no tilling or pesticide use, for example, is encouraged.

In the next few months, there will be a controlled burn on 19 acres of the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield to control some native warm-season grasses planted about five years ago. "That's about 5 or 6 feet tall," Kneipp said, obstructing part of the view for visitors.

Invasive plants, such as Japanese honeysuckle, also must be controlled periodically, and water-quality monitoring is done regularly.

Park Superintendent Russ Smith said the Park Service has a dual mandate to protect historic and natural resources.

"We are held to a high standard," he said. "Whatever we do has to go through environmental impact statements and assessments."

Any clearing is subject to federal environmental review.

Smith said it would be preferable to have a clear vista below Chatham Manor, the park's headquarters overlooking the Rappahannock River. "But we can't just go down to the riverbank and whack down a tree."

Smith recently toured one park boundary and learned that there are other issues outside the protected property.

"A lot of our neighbors support us, but with others, there's dumping of trash, [prohibited] recreational uses, informal trails," he said.

The park, in turn, has a responsibility to its neighbors. For example, many residents depend on park roads, so those roads must be kept clear. In September, Hurricane Isabel felled thousands of trees, many of them within the four battlefields, and some on park neighbors' property.

Smith recognizes that many residents use the battlefields for cycling, walking and jogging.

Spotsylvania County Supervisor Hap Connors would like to see those recreational opportunities expanded.

"I respect and understand the mission of the Park Service, but I have heard people bemoan the fact that there is limited use," Connors said.

For example, he said, the Park Service turned down a request last fall to route a 20-mile run on a battlefield road. "I think that could have introduced a whole new demographic to the value of the parks. It was kind of a no-brainer," Connors said.

Park officials said approving that run would set a precedent that would open the battlefields to all kinds of similar uses.

Environmental and natural resources are important, but secondary, considerations when it comes to park programs and funding.

Smith said an ongoing budget crunch will probably be noticed by visitors this summer.

The park has an annual operating budget of about $3.5 million, of which 90 percent goes toward personnel costs.

"We'll be having fewer summer programs, and we'll be hiring about half the number of seasonal workers," he said.

Hours may be cut back, grounds may not be kept up as well, and the grass may grow a little longer before it's cut.

"Frankly, it doesn't look like it's going to get any better," Smith said.

To reach RUSTY DENNEN: 540/374-5431 rdennen@freelancestar.com





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